Any moviegoer hearing of a new gangster movie has a right to ask, “Why another?” The genre’s tropes—the protagonist’s rise to the top over the bodies of senior mobsters, his acquisition of a moll, the onset of hubris and/or paranoia, the reproaches of law-abiding relatives, the downfall in a hail of bullets—had become clichés by the time the Depression-era classics (The Public Enemy, Little Caesar) finished their initial runs. Consequently, any ambitious successors needed an unfamiliar angle, a fresh take. The Godfather was hailed as a critique of capitalism; Bugsy was a study in would-be celebrity; mobsters went into psychiatric treatment in Analyze This and The Sopranos, served as models of the Organization Man in Goodfellas; and became slaves of hedonistic consumerism in the Scarface remake, where Al Pacino, barricaded in his Miami McMansion, buried his face in a powdery mound of cocaine. With Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone came up with a truly outrageous hybrid: the Proustian gangster epic.
And now we have Black Mass. All the old ingredients are in the mix. Anything new? Black Mass is the true story, recounted in several nonfiction books (including one that lends this film its title), of the alliance between the South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and his FBI contact John Connolly, who is also from “Southie.” This alliance was originally forged to bring down Boston’s Italian mafia and did, but it finally led to what should have been predictable but somehow wasn’t: the unleashing of the mafia’s rival, Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang, and the transformation of Connolly from Whitey’s handler to his partner in crime.
What’s fairly new here is that this gangster story focuses more on the moral seduction and destruction of a lawman than on the downfall of a hood. The script—by the acclaimed British playwright Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk—traces the whole downward spiral: the agent’s overtures to Bulger, initially rejected; Bulger’s realization that he can turn the power of law enforcement to his own advantage; the manipulation of Connolly through appeals to his career ambitions; the dangling of gangster perks (money, pleasure trips, nightclub carousing with high-priced call girls). Watching Bulger’s strong personality profiting from Connolly’s pusillanimity, I couldn’t help recalling Yeats’s famous lines, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Except that, judging by what’s on screen, Connolly was never among the best.
Much of the story is vividly directed and acted. Particularly disturbing is the way Bulger installs himself as a frequent guest in the Connolly home. Mrs. Connolly (played by the excellent Julianne Nicholson) is so creeped out by him that she feigns illness and retreats to her bedroom. Bulger follows her, pretending to be worried about her health (her husband being too craven to intervene). As Bulger feels her forehead and caresses her neck in search of fever, she realizes all too well that her health may indeed be in peril.
Despite this and other good scenes, however, the Bulger-Connolly connection never coalesces into a truly gripping drama. Since, from his very first appearance, the FBI man comes across as nothing but a cocky squirt, there’s no tragic arc here. One of Bulger’s underlings shrewdly observes that the Irish kids of South Boston played cops and robbers on the streets and then graduated to the real thing, on one side or the other, as adults; often it was difficult “to tell who was who.” Did Connolly retain a child’s naïve yearning for heroism when he embarked on his questionable strategy? This possibility goes unexplored because both the script and Joel Edgerton’s energetic but tinny performance render the agent as nugatory, a skuzzball burying himself ever deeper into sleaze rather than a potentially good man brought low.
So, while Connolly’s downfall is the main action of the movie, our attention shifts to Bulger, played by Johnny Depp. Movie gangsters are boring unless they’re as quirky and menacingly magnetic as James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in White Heat (“Top of the world, Ma!”). Depp is menacing to the max. Aided by scarily pale make-up, he comes across as both brutally undeterrable and Machiavellian. It’s quite a performance, but it lacks the one element that would make it a classic: unpredictability. When you watch Cagney’s Cody or Warren Beatty’s Bugsy Siegel, you don’t know if their smiles are announcing a charm offensive or a fusillade. There are no such ambiguous smiles on Depp’s face and little ambiguity in his characterization. More damagingly, his performance is at odds with the script, which has people remarking that Whitey changed for the worse after the deaths of his little son and his mother. But I saw no change at all.
There is a second strand to Black Mass’s storyline that, had it been truly realized, would have made for a more interesting film. James Bulger’s brother, Bill, brought up in the same neighborhood with some of the same friends, seemed to go straight: an altar boy to his brother’s street thug, an excellent law student, perhaps the most powerful politician in his state and Speaker of the State Senate, he was a protégé of U.S. House Speaker John McCormack and the revered Jesuit congressman Robert Drinan. Yet Bill could never shake off his ties with brother Jimmy, whether because of personal affection or family loyalty. Precisely to what extent the Latin-spouting, elegantly tailored politician enabled the crimes of his brother still remains a matter of conjecture, but it’s a matter of fact that Bill’s failure to acknowledge that he remained in touch with Whitey during the latter’s last flight from the law cost him the presidency of the University of Massachusetts. Fascinating material, but the filmmakers may have had to shy away from it for fear of being sued for libel. There are a few hints of the brothers’ relationship, but they remain at the level of hearsay instead of being dramatized. This deprives Benedict Cumberbatch of a meaty role, though his Bill Bulger still contrives to project the image of a man trying to maintain his balance on a tightrope.
Scott Cooper’s direction and Masanobu Takayanagi’s camerawork make South Boston an enclosed world where Mother Nature hardly exists: no sunlight, no greenery, almost no sky, just fog and rain and ice pressing Southies together within bars, clubs, drizzly streetcorners, sterile offices, sinister basements, and cold harbors. This may be visual hyperbole, but it hints at an uncomfortable truth: a community forced by history, custom, and economics to huddle tightly together has little use for outside interference—even when it wears a badge.
Long after the rest of Black Mass fades from my mind, I’ll remember the junkie-prostitute Deborah, brilliantly acted by the British actress June Temple. Too blithe and too stupid to know the danger she’s in, the girl sits in the back seat of Bulger’s car and, in answer to his questions, chirps away—like a little bird in the cupped hands of a poacher—about having talked to the FBI during her overnight stay in a police station. She thinks she’s gladdening Bulger’s heart with her reassurances that she spilled nothing terribly important, but the audience knows better: no matter what she says, her ditsy, irrepressible sweetness spells her doom. Gangsters take no chances.